alp fiddles while crean burns up ...

  1. 5,823 Posts.
    Hmmm... If Johnny's neo-cons get the majority in the Senate next time out, watch out Oz. Please save us Peter.

    ALP fiddles while Crean burns up ...
    By Michelle Grattan
    September 28, 2003

    The Federal Opposition is paralysed in a gridlock of despair and delusion. In theory, only a handful of seats from winning government, it hasn't the will or energy even to try to stop itself from going deeper into the wilderness.

    After yet another series of setbacks, and with the mess itself, not just Simon Crean's unpopularity, taking a toll on Labor, the party remains unable to move, diverting itself with factional brawling, and still refusing to confront the reality that to make any progress, it must change leaders.

    In caucus, the fragmenting of the old, big factions into the modern pattern of "fractions" has multiplied particular interests and made change harder to orchestrate. One Labor man describes caucus as "a camel with eight humps", give or take a couple.

    The main players - the leader, the factional heavies - won't face up to their responsibilities. Crean will not accept what even people in the party who are not taking an active stand on the leadership will tell you: that he's considered unelectable by those who measure these things. This consistent assessment comes despite the publicly available opinion polls suggesting the race is closer. (Newspoll has had Labor trailing 49-51 per cent in two-party terms; a Morgan poll released yesterday even suggested a tight Labor win if an election had been held in early September.)

    The anti-Crean camp is stoking the fire, attempting to galvanise a caucus that's reluctant to face the crisis and in which Crean still retains a clear majority. Frontbencher Wayne Swan, one of the "roosters" who promoted Beazley's challenge, said in a blunt speech on Friday night, "As Paul Keating taught us, in politics there's no second prize. There's only ever one winner.

    "If we lose the next election we will have been out of power for a dozen years. In politics - unlike football - you don't get a go each year. So if you don't get it right you're finished for three years. And if you get it really wrong you can lose a lot of your team for a lot longer."

    The elders of the party are not intervening when they are needed. Take John Faulkner, Opposition Senate leader, who is from the left, but widely respected across factions. Last election, as adviser and strategist, he travelled with Kim Beazley during the campaign. Faulkner should be looking for a way through this impasse, but so far there is no evidence that he is doing so.

    Meanwhile, Faulkner is distracted by another battle, which shows the counterproductive way in which factionalism is now operating. He's trying for No. 1 spot (rather than his previous No. 2 place) on the NSW Senate ticket, ahead of right-wing backbencher Steve Hutchins, former state president, who hasn't even made the front bench.

    It would seem logical that the party's most senior senator, whose careful committee work has enabled Labor to score hits, would head the ticket. As Faulkner writes in a two-page letter sent to more than 800 delegates to next weekend's state conference, which will choose the ticket, "As one of only three current shadow ministers with ministerial and cabinet service, I consider my experience and profile can assist the party maximise our Senate vote in NSW. I believe my leading Labor's Senate ticket gives us our best chance of maintaining our current representation in NSW."

    But logic and ALP factionalism don't necessarily go hand in hand, and the left is in a minority at the NSW conference.

    There is almost nothing that isn't turning sour for Crean and Labor.

    Crean spent a lot of political capital winning changes to the ALP rules last year. This has produced a conference for next January that will have 400 delegates and could be far less manageable than previously, especially if the party is still divided about the leadership.

    In the run-up to the conference, factional fighting and number games are turning forums such as the national executive ugly. The recent brawl between Stephen Conroy, deputy Labor Senate leader, from the right, and party president and factional defector Greg Sword was widely reported, after it was leaked to damage Crean. This stoush, over power play in Victoria, had Sword telling Conroy he was mad, Conroy saying Sword had no legitimacy as president, and Senator Peter Cook, leader of the centre, suggesting later that Conroy should be disciplined.

    It was only one of two fights at the executive that day. The other was between the NSW right and left over whether there should be "above the line" voting - one tick in the box for a faction ticket as a whole - for NSW national conference delegates. This was proposed by the right and opposed by Faulkner (on the grounds a maverick delegate could never get through) and, according to one source, "You could hear the shouting in (the nearby suburb of) Manuka." The executive voted to ask NSW not to go ahead with it for this conference.

    All this took more time than did discussion of how Labor is travelling and electoral preparation.

    Another rule change was for the elected presidency. Labor expects to install Carmen Lawrence, who is not exactly in sync with the leadership. Not that anybody's worrying much, given the malaise.

    People in Labor's machine have virtually no hopes of a Crean Government being elected. "Crean is less popular than any other Opposition Leader in living memory," says one organisation figure. "People have to decide whether they want political oblivion."

    This person is not confident that Kim Beazley, the only real alternative, would be much better. Things have become so bad, so fractured, so dysfunctional that, in the words of another machine man, "No one can unite the federal caucus at the moment." This is the really frightening prospect for Labor.

    Let's assume that caucus decided enough was enough, dumped Crean and installed Beazley. This has seemed for months the most rational thing it could do, although it refused to do it when it had an opportunity.

    But now that Crean has elevated Mark Latham to be for all intents and purposes (though not in title) his deputy, holding the powerful posts of both shadow treasurer and manager of Opposition business, how could Beazley as leader deal with the Latham situation?

    Latham is a strong opponent of Beazley, even leaving aside that he is a leadership rival (not as a challenger to Crean but in the apparently unlikely event of Crean standing down). Latham resigned in a huff from Beazley's front bench after the 1998 election because his education policy had been changed by Beazley's office before the poll.

    Beazley would either have to attempt to keep Latham at least in the shadow treasurership, or shuffle him sideways to some lesser post. Either way would be problematic. It would be even worse if Latham refused to serve on a Beazley front bench. Managing the Latham problem would be a major challenge in a leadership change - but who could be the honest broker and at what stage could the broking be done?

    As Latham starts to streak ahead of the other new-generation of contenders who would line up after a defeat, they've begun taking swipes at the style he represents as well as the content he's advancing. "Energy is critical in politics but without empathy it is meaningless," Swan said on Friday; Lindsay Tanner said the previous Friday, "Brutality in politics might entertain, but it will never persuade."

    Swan also had a go at Latham's grand plan of subsidised savings. "People with kids and a low income have little hope of saving anything. Each fortnight their pay packet is accounted for before it arrives.

    "These people aren't worried about saving - they are bloody terrified about how to pay their bills. We shouldn't disappoint them with boutique solutions or paternalism imported wholesale from the United States that is marginal to the needs of battling Australians."

    Latham has pepped up the Opposition's performance. But his own performance is mixed, and his colleagues are as fiercely divided about him as the electorate is.

    Beazley continues to parade his wares, with a little help from his friends. His big speech last week - which if delivered by a leader would be called a "headland" address - was more rounded and comprehensive than usual. The clue to the identity of his assistant was in the suggestion that got the headline - that if taxes had to rise, increasing the Medicare levy would be the way to go. Stephen Smith, another "rooster", now on the back bench, as health spokesman raised this a couple of times. Crean slapped it down - just as he did when Beazley put it forward last week.

    Despite disavowals, Beazley is running as hard as circumstances permit, though there is no way of telling whether into a third chance or a brick wall.

    In his speech he portrayed himself as the potential leader who could be credible on national security and Labor's staples of health, education and other traditional areas - and sought to link the two sets of issues.

    "The strategic asset of national unity has to be infused into all areas of policy," he said.

    Suggestions from some Labor quarters that caucus will give Crean until after the conference to prove himself are another indication this party can't cope.

    Some say that if Beazley is ever to be installed, the best time would be later, so he'd face the election before the Government had a chance to wear him down.

    The argument is, however, outweighed by others. An electorate confronted with a recycled Beazley would, understandably, want time to decide whether to reconsider him. If he can't hack that scrutiny he doesn't deserve to be PM.

    And is there any sense in Labor going into a national conference in a disorderly state? One senior party figure warns: "A wrecked conference would be a disaster, whatever the eventual leadership outcome. It would be wrecking the house."

    Ideally, the party would settle its affairs before Christmas and use the conference as a springboard.

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    Cheers .. tight stops.

    This is only my view ... read the red stuff.

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